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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What It's Like Reporting in the Kremlin Pool

MTAnna Smolchenko started reporting from the Kremlin last fall, when the paper got permission to join the Kremlin pool.
President Vladimir Putin said on U.S. television in 2005 that he sometimes read The Moscow Times. About a year later, the paper finally managed to get several reporters into the Kremlin pool.

Since its first days in 1992, The Moscow Times has fallen into a gray zone. It is registered as a Russian newspaper, so the Foreign Ministry refuses to give its reporters the accreditation needed to attend many official events. The newspaper, however, is in English, so the other ministries and the Kremlin have treated it as a foreign publication, refusing to give it the rights afforded other Russian newspapers.

The Kremlin press service, however, finally agreed to let in The Moscow Times last fall on the condition that the reporter was a Russian citizen and cleared a background check.

A place in the Kremlin pool, of course, does not guarantee any insights into the most intriguing questions of Kremlin politics. But it does give access to high-ranking officials such as Putin aides Sergei Prikhodko and Igor Sechin and his spokesman Alexei Gromov. During times of opaque decision making, the mere opportunity to attend a Kremlin event to watch for clues can be helpful.

Access to Putin varies from newspaper to newspaper. As one reporter put it, "You have to be either a favorite newspaper or a favorite reporter." Kommersant's Andrei Kolesnikov appears to be lucky on both counts. He seems to have Gromov's ear and, therefore, unprecedented access to events involving Putin. He also appears to be the only reporter who can get away with making fun of the president and his guests in his reports.

The rest of the Kremlin pool reporters tend to ask Putin softball questions and dutifully copy down his speeches at news conferences. Only foreign reporters seem to dare to challenge Putin.

It was during a 2005 interview with a U.S. journalist that Putin said he sometimes read The Moscow Times. The journalist, Mike Wallace of the CBS program "60 Minutes," had asked Putin whether he read the newspaper and, hearing the affirmative, proceeded to read from an Associated Press story published in the paper a few months earlier. The article reported Putin's comments on the dangers of anti-Semitism made at a ceremony in Poland on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The Kremlin's press people know they hold the keys to an exclusive club, and any new publication hoping to break into it means only more hassle for them. "Do you realize how many media outlets are waiting to get accredited with us?" one official said by way of greeting when I first joined the pool in October.

Officials, however, have grown more helpful over the months. In May, one official helped me get into the Volzhsky Utyos resort in the Samara region to report about the upcoming Russian-EU summit a day before most other reporters. Another official ferried me into a meeting between Putin and foreign executives at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, although initially we were not on the list.

But it is still hard to get invited to many events that interest our Western readers. When the Kremlin organizes the occasional get-together with the foreign media, the paper becomes a local publication and is excluded from the guest list.

"The only reason we didn't call you was because we wanted to speak to the global media," a Kremlin spokesman told me after a recent event.

When pressed, the spokesman said he was well aware that the "global media" often start their day by reading The Moscow Times and sometimes get story ideas from it. "Perhaps, it was an oversight," he said.